Augusta Christian will begin the 2009 season with plenty of transitions.
A new head coach and new starting quarterback stand out as some of the bigger changes. But some things never change.
"We've got to beat Hammond," first-year head coach Keith Walton said. "They're the champs, and if you want to be the best team in SCISA, that's who you have to beat."
Walton, taking over for former athletic director and football coach Bruce Lane, will lead the Lions in a task not so different from past seasons. Hammond has won the SCISA Class AAA state title each of the past three years. High school coaches typically don't like to put a bigger emphasis on certain games over others, sticking to the one-game-at-a-time cliche.
Walton is no different, but he's also realistic.
"We don't talk about it being the most important game of the year," he said. "But the kids aren't crazy. If you want to win, they know who you have to beat."
Hammond won last year's state title without facing Augusta Christian in the playoffs. The Lions bowed out early with a first-round loss to an opponent they beat in the regular season. It was a sudden pain that turned into a prolonged ache in the offseason.
"When you know you're a better team, that stings," Walton said. "And it was at home and a team we already beat. But we couldn't take care of business. We've used that as motivation (this summer)."
Augusta Christian won't face Hammond until the final game of the regular season. The Lions open the season Friday as they always do -- at South Carolina State to take on Orangeburg Prep in Oliver C. Dawson Stadium, the home of the SCISA state championship game each year.
This time around, the Lions won't have versatile athlete William Banks, reliable placekicker Steven Bloedel and lineman Jonathan Gibbs on the field. They'll instead rely on senior leadership from tailback Cole Turner and wide receiver Evan Wells and throw in youthful talent like freshmen Tyler Roberson (quarterback) and Sean Sweeting (middle linebacker).
Walton, in his 14th season at the school, will be starting his first year as head coach. Though last year's early first-round exit hurt, the team still went 8-4 to stretch its record over the past four years to 30-11. It's a mark any area program would love, and Walton said he won't change what has worked in the past for the Lions.
"We all like coach Walton," junior defensive back Christian Croft said. "He's a likeable guy, but he's still kept the discipline there, and he's kept things pretty similar."
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